Toxic mold is as likely to be found in your place of employment as it is in your home. If you are spending eight hours a day, five days a week, in a place contaminated by toxic mold, your risk of toxic mold exposure is high. What can you do?
Symptoms of a Sick Building
In Las Vegas, a 56-year-old man is permanently disabled, struggling for breath, his skin covered in sores, his mind unable to process simple information. His doctors say he suffers from fungal infections caused by both Aspergillus and Stachybotrys mold after several years of toxic black mold exposure at work. Dan Paulus worked in a sick building, and even his local health department officials didn’t recognize the danger. In fact, Paulus is a health department official. His office was inside the city’s Health Department building.
What is a sick building?
Any building where the indoor air quality is so poor that it affects the health of people who live or work there.
Indoor air can become polluted by chemicals, such as the outgassing from building materials, or chemicals that are carried in on dry-cleaned clothing or cleaning products. But the building where Dan Paulus worked was contaminated by a biological toxin: toxic black mold.
In many cases, the only signs of a sick building are medical symptoms developed by people who live and work there. If one employee is diagnosed with a fungal infection from mold exposure, all co-workers should consider whether their health problems — chronic respiratory infections, rashes, dizziness, etc. — might also be linked to mold exposure. A sick building is likely to be making everyone inside sick, although some people will react more severely than others.
Sick buildings can be caused by new construction materials and water damage, but also by:
- HVAC systems that cycle off when the building is closed for the night, allowing humidity to build and condense.
- Inadequate air conditioning and ventilation systems.
- Underground moisture that seeps into the building through inadequately sealed building foundations.
Buildings with indoor water features, such as swimming pools and fountains, can have poor indoor air quality (IAQ) unless the air conditioning and ventilation systems are big enough to handle the extra humidity caused.
What If I Work in a Sick Building?
Sick buildings can be “cured” in many cases by mold removal. If you suspect you are working in a sick building, speak to your manager or the company owner and voice your concerns. Sometimes several employees must band together to pressure management to have a professional mold evaluation of the building. If toxic mold is discovered, the inspector will be able to suggest the kind of mold remediation that will be required.
Curing a sick building might involve cleaning heating and air conditioning ducts, repairing structural leaks, and replacing ceiling panels, wallboards damaged by leaks, or replacing the carpet. Business in the building might be disrupted for days or weeks while the work is done, but improved indoor air quality will benefit everyone who works in the building — including managers.
Government Regulations, OSHA, and Mold
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and many other U.S. federal agencies have documented toxic mold as a danger in the workplace. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a bulletin, Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings that addresses the issue. But as of this date, there is no American federal regulation specifically dealing with mold. OSHA, the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has no clear-cut guidelines or “mold standard” to use in evaluating complaints about mold in the workplace, although it has published A Brief Guide to Mold in the Workplace as a Safety and Health Information Bulletin. Disclaimers within the bulletin specify that the OSHA information does not create any legal obligation on the part of the employer, but also reminds employers that they are bound to provide employees with a workplace free from hazards.
Although workplace safety issues normally come under the jurisdiction of OSHA, other federal agencies have attempted to nail down the employer obligations concerning mold in the workplace. The American Society of Safety Engineers is working on developing a standard to protect workers during mold remediation; the standard will recommend procedures to minimize worker exposure to mold, but will not set a maximum acceptable level for mold that would automatically trigger remediation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published guidelines for indoor air quality entitled “Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings.” The EPA considers toxic mold a form of air pollution.
But although many local governments are waiting to see what stand OSHA will eventually take, other states and cities have developed their own mold legislation that might serve to protect workers in sick buildings. New York City has had toxic mold guidelines since 1992.
The proving ground for state regulations concerning toxic mold is often the state Worker’s Compensation programs. Workers injured by toxic mold in the workplace can file claims for compensation for their lost wages and medical costs, just as workers can if they are injured by anything else at work. Such claims force state legislatures to consider and decide about the validity of toxic mold injuries.
State-by-state guidelines on mold legislation are available from the Center for Disease Control.
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